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Theories on the Atonement

The word “atonement” is simply an old English term for at-one-ment and the theories of the atonement ask the question about how the death of Jesus makes humans right with God. Since Paul and the rest of the New Testament authors left later theologians with a variety of images for how Jesus’ death works, there have been different attempts to integrate all of the New Testament data into a total systematic theology. Here are some of the proposals:

  • Christus Victor (cf. Gustaf Aulén): Jesus’ death was a cosmic victory over the powers of darkness and death and liberates humanity from their control. In the Patristic and Medieval eras, this developed into the view that the death of Christ was a ransom paid to devil in order to release the devil’s captives. The spiritual forces of death, however, could not keep hold of Jesus and were defeated at Jesus’ resurrection.
  • Recapitulation/Participation (Irenaeus of Lyons): Jesus becomes fully incarnate, taking on our fallen human nature from birth to death and reverses the effects of death by his resurrection. By united ourselves with Christ, we die to our old way of life and are raised to become a new creation being conformed to the divine image (cf. the symbolism of baptism in Romans 6:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
  • Satisfaction (Anselm of Canterbury): in a feudal political arrangement, land was given in exchange for honor and service. God is the ultimate lord who should be exalted and served, but rebellion is an affront to God’s honor. Christ’s obedience to the point of death pays back the honor that is due to the divine sovereign as a form of compensation and the merits of Christ can be attained by believers.
  • Penal Substitution (John Calvin): humanity stands guilty of breaking God’s law before the divine court and should be condemned at the final judgment, but Jesus takes the punishment in our place. The “Govermental Theory” is a variation on this model in that Jesus is not so much taking the punishment that is due sinners as demonstrating God’s just wrath against sin itself.
  • Moral Influence (Peter Abelard): the cross does not objectively atone for sin or satisfy divine wrath, but subjectively moves humans to repentance in response to Jesus’ example. Jesus’ death exemplifies divine love, selfless service, or non-violent resistance against the powers and sets a model for his followers to follow.
  • Girardian Scapegoat (Rene Girard): mimetic rivalry turns people into rivals for the same object (i.e. I desire the same thing that you desire) and leads to conflict over it. To prevent violence from spiraling out of control, society redirects the violence towards a third party (i.e. scapegoat) so that social order is restored. Jesus’ is executed as a scapegoat and, as an innocent victim of society’s violence, exposes the injustice of the scapegoat mechanism.

Paul and the Mercy Seat

In the last post, we looked at some of the images that Paul uses to convey the significance of Jesus’ death. Under the category “religious”, I listed Romans 3:25 as drawing on the imagery of the temple sacrificial system. There is some debate about the translation of the term hilastērion as “propitiation” or “expiation,” with the former meaning emphasizing that Jesus’ death satisfies God’s righteous anger or wrath and the latter meaning focusing on how the impure stain of sin is removed. Other scholars point to how this Greek term is used to translate the “mercy seat” where God was enthroned on the ark of the covenant as a symbol of the divine presence with the people. I find the article by Daniel Bailey entitled “Jesus as the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul’s Use of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25Tyndale Bulletin 51.1 (2000) 155-158 to be convincing on this issue. For Paul (or perhaps for the earlier writer of this creedal formulation), Jesus’ sacrificial death has made away from sinful humanity to dwell in the presence of a holy God.

Paul and the Death of Jesus

The apostle Paul describes the crucifixion of Jesus as a stumbling block to Jewish thinkers and foolishness to Greek thinkers (1 Corinthians 1:23). Although there are images of the suffering righteous in the Psalms of lament, the suffering servant passages in deutero-Isaiah, and the martyrs who died for their steadfastness to Torah under the oppressive Syrian ruler Antiochus IV, it does not seem to be the case that anyone had linked these texts with the coming messianic deliverer(s) before the followers of Jesus. In order to articulate the significance of Jesus’ death, Paul draws on the language of his everyday world:

  • Political: the death of Jesus has reconciled humanity to God as if they were formerly enemy combatants and God has offered a peace treaty (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
  • Military: Jesus is victorious over evil spiritual powers on the cross (e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:7-8; Colossians 2:14-15)
  • Economic: Jesus’ death had redeemed us or paid the ransom price for our release from slavery (e.g. Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 5:7)
  • Judicial: Jesus takes our sentence so that we might be acquitted before the divine law court (e.g. Romans 8:3; Galatians 3:10-13; 2 Corinthians 5:21)
  • Religious: Jesus’ death is like a cultic sacrifice offered at the temple (e.g. Romans 3:24)
  • Exemplary: the ancients were familiar with the “noble death” where one dies for a family member, a nation, or a set of principles (Greek philosophy, Torah), but Jesus’ death stands out in dying for the undeserving (e.g. Romans 5:5-8)

Paul and the “Faith of Christ”

The phrase pistis Christou (“faith of Christ”) has sparked considerable controversy among translators of Paul’s letters. Should this be translated as an objective genitive meaning “faith in Christ” or as a subjective genitive meaning “Christ’s faithfulness.” The former has an anthropological emphasis as it is our trust in or allegiance to Christ; this corresponds to how Paul uses the verb “to trust/believe in” where humans are clearly the subject and Christ the object of faith. Alternatively, the latter translation is Christocentric, emphasizing how salvation has been accomplished through Christ’s act alone, and could be paralleled in the hymn where Christ was obedient to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-11). However, the theological differences should not be exaggerated as the disputed examples occur in only a handful of verses and, in an example like Romans 3:22, salvation has been revealed through “faith in Jesus Christ” or “Jesus Christ’s faithfulness” yet must then be received by all who have faith in either case.

Those of us who have been blogging for a long time remember the parody account set up by an anonymous blogger who went by the moniker “N.T. Wrong.” Since N. T. Wright has argued for the subjective genitive reading, it is only natural that his online foil defended the opposite conclusion :). I might demur from some of the individual judgments, but the blogger presented a pretty strong case for the objective genitive in the following posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Also check out Michael F. Bird’s and Preston M. Sprinkle’s edited volume The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies that brings together scholars on both sides of the debate.

Paul and the “Righteousness of God”

The Greek phrase dikaiosynē theou could be translated as the “righteousness/justice of God” and reflects one of Paul’s major theological concerns. However, it is debated how it should best be translated.

Should this be translated as a genitive of source, meaning the righteousness from God? Righteousness could be a status that is imputed to the believer through the verdict that is handed out before the divine law court or could denote the ethical transformation of the believer.This has been a major divide between traditional Protestant and Catholic interpreters.

Alternatively, it could be translated as a subject genitive, meaning that it refers to God’s own righteousness as either the deity’s moral perfection or characteristic way of acting in relation to the people who have been divinely elected. I prefer this reading. A key theme of Romans is to vindicate God’s righteousness in the equitable treatment of all humanity, the revelation of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, and God’s continued faithfulness to the covenant people as well as to the nations despite what Paul perceives to be the lackluster reception of his gospel among his compatriots. After all, Paul faces the objection over whether human unfaithfulness could ever nullify God’s faithfulness and replies “may it never be!” (Rom 3:3-4, see also the expressions “righteousness of God” and “truthfulness of God” in the section).

The Biblical Studies Carnival for November of 2016

Jim West is hosting both the official Biblioblogging Carnival and his own Avignonian Carnival. November is always a fun month to review the blogs since many bloggers participate in the annual Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meetings. Enjoy.